A Roundtable Discussion with David Ebenbach, Kathy Flann, West Moss, and Joselyn Lewis

Self-Authorship in the Writing Classroom: Helping Our Students Find Themselves

The world after college graduation—jobs, relationships, citizenship—demands a lot more from graduates than just knowledge and skills. Our students, if they’re going to thrive, are going to need some real self-awareness and the ability to make their own decisions. In order to get there, they’ll have to engage in a process of what psychologist Robert Kagan calls “self-authorship.” This means developing (in the words of education scholar Marcia Baxter Magolda) “the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations.” In other words, our students need to let go of the way that they’ve been defined by others and decide for themselves who they’re going to be in the world. Luckily, writing classes can be the perfect place for people to work toward becoming the authors of their lives, and teachers are in a great position to help.

West Moss

When you were a student, did you have any academic experiences that were significant in your own process of self-authorship, by either hindering or spurring your efforts to define yourself?

David Ebenbach: In high school I took a creative writing class taught by a wonderful woman named Carole Nehez, and she did one of the most important things you can do for a person: she helped me find my voice. She helped her students in a number of different ways. First of all, she didn’t line us up in rows facing her at the front of the room; she put the chairs in a circle and we all sat in the circle together, which told us we all had important things to say, that we all could teach. Then, class conversations were free-wheeling and open and spontaneous, and she followed our lead when it was productive. One day, for example, it was raining outside and I asked her at the beginning of class if some of us could run around in the rain for a few minutes before settling into our chairs, and she let us do it. About half the class went, and we came back soaked and energized. But the most important thing was the writing, and particularly the journal writing. Mrs. Nehez required us to keep a journal, and encouraged us to write about anything and everything. She mandated a space for self-exploration. She said we had to do it, so we did.

Kathy Flann: The first experience I remember vividly related to writing and self-awareness is when I wrote a paper in high school about Julius Caesar, and the teacher accused me of plagiarizing it because it was so good. I was both insulted and flattered. I’d been going to Shakespeare plays with my parents since I was a child, and I’d had a lot of time to develop my own thoughts about them. I knew, from that accusation of being beyond my years, that I had come up with my own ideas. They weren’t canned. Even though it was a terrible experience, it was also an important moment. I often think of it when I teach. I remember how much one comment can affect someone.

West Moss: In one of my college lit classes, we were told to keep a journal of our thoughts about what we were reading. I met with my professor one day and he sat and read through my journal, quietly turning the pages. He hesitated and read something out loud to me that I had written. He said, “Is this YOUR idea?” I was confused and said that yes, it was. He got a tear in his eye and a big smile on his face. He sat forward and said, “West, what a brilliant insight.” I was eighteen and I burst into tears. It was as though someone had finally seen what I had suspected but had been unable to confirm until then: namely, that I had ideas that were worthwhile. This was a turning point in my sense of myself as a student and thinker, with ideas of my own to contribute to the larger discussion.

Joselyn Lewis: During the last semester of my senior year in college, I was writing a thesis as part of the graduation requirements in my major. The professor leading the thesis capstone seminar was a very established and respected faculty member in the department, someone I admired greatly and found to be an engaged and supportive educator, but also someone who intimidated me. I disagreed with his opinions at times, but struggled with confidence as to whether or not I had something of value to say and how to express my perspective to him. One day during a whole class discussion, while we were workshopping my classmate’s paper, I suggested that the main premise of her thesis was based on some mistaken cultural assumptions. When my professor supported my classmate’s position, the discussion turned into a direct debate with him and I realized I was very passionate about my take on the issues. I stood my ground and while he did not come around to my perspective, I left class shaking from having tried, but still convinced that I was right.

That afternoon, I had a scheduled check-in with my advisor where I relayed the events from class earlier in the day. He could hear the emotion in my voice and the importance of this argument to me. He did not tell me that he agreed with me or that he thought I was right, but for me, he did something even better. After he heard me out, the first thing he said was “Have you ever considered going to graduate school? I think you should.” Graduate school was actually not on my radar prior to that exchange, but my advisor’s reaction to me at that moment changed everything. I started seeing myself as someone who was capable of that level of academic work and as someone who had something to contribute. It was very significant.

David Ebenbach

How can writing—and particularly creative writing—help people on their journey toward self-authorship?

Kathy Flann: I think a creative writing workshop is the one place where students really do make their own decisions about the work they produce. Typically, faculty are most sincere in those classes about the carte blanche to make the work what they want it to be, and students sense that sincerity. They know the work is “real” in the sense that it could potentially be read by people just like them—fans of fiction. So they take the work of craft very seriously. They think of themselves as “real” writers in ways they may not in other disciplines.

Joselyn Lewis: I think writing can be supportive of our process of identity development and self-authorship in a number of ways. Writing can create space to slow down. That change in pace between writing and other ways we might communicate about ourselves and interact with others allows for a space that is more conducive to self-reflection and self-analysis. Also, writing, and perhaps creative writing in particular, requires an attention to voice in a way that often encourages the writer to work on finding their voice, recognizing and owning what kind of voice one has and how one wants to use it.

David Ebenbach: Some writing is direct self-authorship. For example, memoir and poetry can be places where you try to get a grip on your own story and make sense of it, and come to conclusions about it. It’s almost the same case with fiction and playwriting if it’s thinly veiled autobiography. But that’s just the obvious stuff. Even fiction that has no direct correspondence to your own life can spur the process of self-authorship. Maybe you drop a character into a moral conundrum and work them through it and, in so doing, discover how you feel about that situation; maybe you just can’t stop writing about loss (or connection, or faith, or struggle, or whatever it is); maybe you let characters do things you would never dare to do (or think you would never dare to do). In each case you learn something about what matters to you. Writing allows you to talk about the world, or a world, anyway, and then you learn—by comparison, by contrast—about your own world.

West Moss: I think I answer this below.


Kathy Flann

How can a teacher support the process of self-authorship?

Joselyn Lewis: From my experience, educators who are able to create intentional ways for students to connect academic material to their own lived experiences provide students with both powerful opportunities to further develop their own self-authorship and powerful learning experiences. Some faculty I work with do this by assigning writing assignments that explicitly ask students to bring themselves into conversation with course material—a faith autobiography for a religion class, or a weekly reflection journal, for example. The writing process is a supportive element as well as the sharing between student and teacher and what that sharing sets up in terms of the student feeling “seen” by the teacher. Another way to support the process of students’ self-authorship is to model or share experiences from our own trajectory toward self-authorship. It’s particularly helpful if teachers are willing to share some of the obstacles or difficulties in the process, so students can see the complexity, potential messiness, and non-linear nature of identity development and movement toward self-authorship.

Kathy Flann: What I do is spend the first 3-6 weeks, depending on the level of the student, assigning ungraded work. Every time the student says, “Did you like it? Did I do well on it?” I say “Do YOU like it?” I explain as many times as it takes that they’re not writing for me. I say, “If you don’t like your work, probably no one else will like it, either.” I use my own writing experiences as examples in class, so that they will understand that we are all writers. We are just at different points on our journeys. I love it the most when I sit side-by-side with students who’ve come to my office and I ask them questions, “What does this guy want? Does he have a job? What does he do? Who is his family? What did he do yesterday? Why?” etc. It’s fun to see the student grasp that the answers are there in the mind. I think they also see that they, the students, are the only ones with the answers to these questions. I can guide, but I can’t provide the answers.

Joselyn Lewis

David Ebenbach: I think teachers can help students grow into themselves in two ways: by making space for the process and by challenging them to engage. Like Carole Nehez, my high school creative writing teacher, you can set up the classroom and in-class time to bring out voices—sitting in a circle, using first names, letting students do a lot of the talking—and you can use exercises that invite exploration: discussions based around student perspectives and experiences, journal-writing, reflection papers, writing assignments that ask them to tell childhood stories. In terms of writing exercises, I like to start with emotionally easy stuff (e.g., write a detailed physical description of a place you associate with your childhood) and then move to more fraught prompts (e.g., write a scene in which someone you really don’t like does something unexpectedly nice).

In some classes, I build up to an assignment called “Write the story you’re not allowed to write,” which I first encountered as a sentence in a Janet Burroway textbook and which I’ve elaborated on quite a bit. Some of the options for the assignment: “Write a fictionalized version of some true events that you are not supposed to reveal to the world….Write about something that is taboo for you….Don’t pick what’s taboo for others—go for what makes you squirm….Write sympathetically from the point of view of a protagonist who makes you genuinely uncomfortable. This would be the kind of person that secretly on some level you can relate to or might even wish to be, even though officially you completely disapprove of this kind of person.” Nobody is required to do this assignment—I give them an alternative—but almost everybody chooses to do it, and usually they find that they’re discovering important things, surviving those discoveries, growing from those discoveries, and, on top of that, writing the most promising thing they’ve written all semester long.

West Moss: There are ways to make the classroom feel safe for students to share their ideas, and to discover what they think about the world. Certainly listening carefully and giving genuine supportive responses is key, but also pushing them to write about their own worlds is often fruitful. In creative writing classes, I often begin class with brief (2-3 minute) in-class writing exercises, where I ask them to write about things they’ve noticed that morning, or interactions from years ago that they still think about. When shared, these things help build a community within the classroom, but they can also show beginning CW students that their own lives provide rich material for writing.

I have an assignment called “The Lies Our Characters Tell.” We read a short story together, something very short like John Cheever’s “Reunion,” for example, and look at how a particular character is lying (often to themselves) about themselves. For instance, the father in that story says that he cares about his son, but his actions show that he doesn’t. These small moments of dishonesty in characters can be revelatory for students, and demonstrate the kinds of inner conflicts we want our characters to display.

Next, students make a list of the stories they told about themselves when they last met someone new. What clothes did they wear and what “story” were they trying to tell with those clothes? Were they trying to look sexy, athletic, wealthy? Did they want to look like they didn’t care in some way, while actually caring very deeply about what people thought of them? Could they see the inner-conflict inherent in some of their own choices? Then I ask them to write down some of the actual stories they tell about themselves. Do they lead with their summer in France, or do they lead with their most recent awful break-up? Do they find stories to tell that make it clear they come from money, or do they prefer to immediately disclose that they were adopted, and why?

Then they’re asked to reflect on what these clashes between who they really are and who they portray themselves to be tell them about themselves. Does it reveal that they want something they don’t feel they can have? Does it reveal their senses of inadequacy or mastery in some way? One’s sense of identity, and one’s own understanding of small, potent conflicts in their own world, are essential underpinnings of compelling writing, but perhaps also of being a full human being.

These kinds of insights lead to several good outcomes. First, beginning CW students often feel they have to rely on large conflicts (explosions, wars, the death of a protagonist) in order to build tension in their stories. These exercises show them the kinds of small tensions that are real and universal, and that will help them to build characters that their readers will care about. More importantly, though, they help students in their own awareness of “self,” which is a critical sense for writers to develop. These are the kinds of tools, too, that I like to think I am giving them to use in life in general…the skill of reflection, of “noticing,” and a sense that their lives, and ideas, are thrilling and complex and moving enough to be at the center of their writing, and of their consciousness.

David Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved and the story collection Into the Wilderness. He is a Professor of the Practice in Creative Writing at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.

Kathy Flann‘s short story collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Maryland.

Joselyn Lewis is an Associate Director for Inclusive Teaching and Learning Initiatives at Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. She leads the Engelhard Project and the Doyle Faculty Fellowship Program, which promote curricular and pedagogical innovation on issues of well-being, diversity, and inclusive pedagogy.

West Moss teaches creative writing at William Paterson University and at Gotham in New York City. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, Salon.com, Brevity, and elsewhere. Her collection of short stories, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, was published by Leapfrog Press.

Fourth Time’s A Charm

This fall, I will begin an MFA program at Eastern Washington University. I’m very excited to work with Willow Springs and experience the literary community thriving in Spokane. For two years, I’ll focus solely on my writing and the workshop process. I am incredibly happy and grateful to have this opportunity, and I’m looking forward to joining the students at EWU.

The first time I applied to an MFA program was throughout the 2009/2010 school year, my last year as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee. I was twenty-one years old and had just gotten married in November of 2009. I only applied to ten schools and was accepted to five of them. I chose to attend the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire.

It was great to be able to work with many amazing writers and professors at UNH. I took a fantastic novel writing course and learned a lot in my semester there. I later left the program after the first week of the spring semester because I was going through a divorce. I couldn’t handle the emotional fallout and craft good stories at the same time.

Even though I left the program, I never stopped writing, and I never stopped wishing for a community of writers with which to share work. After I left New Hampshire, I bounced around the country. First I went back to Tennessee, lived there for a year, and then I moved back to Maryland in 2012 where I’ve been ever since.

In 2011 and 2012, I applied for MFA programs because I missed the camaraderie and community; the workshopping and writing, the drafting and development. Both times I applied I received acceptances, but there wasn’t any funding to go with those acceptances. I turned down my offers.

I met my boyfriend, Justin, at the Frederick Writer’s Salon. We’d both applied for MFA programs in the fall of 2012, and we’d both declined our offers because they weren’t fully funded. By the spring of 2013, when we started dating, we were working on writing projects together. We based our relationship on our shared desire to be writers. But we also had to find a way to live, so we both began “careers.” He works in communications for a local nonprofit. I joined AmeriCorps and worked for a year at the national nonprofit, Operation Homefront.

Since August, I’ve been working as a Communications and Marketing Coordinator for a local nonprofit. It has not been as fulfilling as I thought it would be. As much as I hate to say that, I’m glad to be leaving my current job for an opportunity at Eastern Washington. I plan to use my time in Spokane wisely, to connect with other writers, and to work with skilled faculty members on a variety of projects.

Now I just have to figure out how to move one boyfriend and two cats all the way from Rockville, Maryland to Spokane, Washington. I’m ready to begin the next chapter of my life.



Katherine Bell blogs with her boyfriend, Justin Eisenstadt at WeWriteTogether.net where they discuss a variety of movies, television shows, books and other pop-culture interests. You can find her fiction in the Blue Lyra Review, the East Coast Literary Review, and Connotation Press.

Project Bookshelf: Katy Bilbrey


You can learn a great deal about a person by looking at their bookshelves, and mine is no exception.  I started collecting books in my middle-school years. Like my mother (whose books occupy almost every room in our house), I’ve always enjoyed being surrounded by beautifully bound literature. Although I love my e-reader, it just doesn’t compare to looking at a shelf of books that you’ve gathered over the years.

The bookshelf pictured here is one that I have owned since the beginning of high-school. It has remained at home due to limited space in my dorm room, but I’m still able to visit it frequently. It is a tribute to the personal fascinations and interests that I discovered while growing up, and every book is still relevant to my life.

My prized collection of vintage Nancy Drew novels grace the top shelf, along with my small group of signed books. The middle shelf houses evidence from a vampire phase I went through in my mid-teens, including the mother of the genre, Ann Rice (for the record, Stephanie Meyer books have never been within a mile of this bookshelf). On the same level, I have a set of Shel Silverstein books (a must-have for every collection), craft magazines, a couple of classics from my high-school reading, and, yes, that is an inflatable unicorn horn for cats.

The bottom shelf is my favorite, as it includes such a variety of topics. I have a great collection of oversized fashion and beauty books that are always fun to go through (included is a book about the history of underwear that my grandmother gifted me one Christmas). I have some anatomy books from when I was interested in going to medical school (cue hysterical laughter), reference materials for some of my AP high school-classes, and vegetarian cook books. My most beloved books on this shelf are a pair of numerology/astrology guides my mother bought in the late ‘80s, a biography of Audrey Hepburn, and a signed book about The Body Farm written by Dr. Bass himself.

Each of these books is permanently linked to a specific point in my life, and I could never get rid of any of them. I look forward to building this collection, and filling my future home with bookshelves (even if it lands me on a reality show about hoarding one day).

Katy Bilbrey is a senior at Maryville College and is majoring in graphic design. A lover of vintage advertisements, typography, book-cover design, and the entirety of the Art Nouveau movement, she knows she is in the right field but is unsure of what she’s going to do with her degree. Her talents include reading multiple books at once, making fast decisions, and applying liquid eyeliner. In her free time, she enjoys laughing and FaceTiming her cat, Strawberry.

Meet our new graphic design intern: Katy Bilbrey!

Katy Bilbrey - Copy(1)

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Like Alice, I often feel as if I’m lost in the middle of Wonderland. I don’t exactly know where I am going (or where I want to go for that matter), but I’m starting to learn that the path you choose is not as important when compared to how you decide to walk it.

I am currently a design major and business minor at Maryville College, a small school located in the beautiful town of Maryville, Tennessee. My hometown, Crossville, is only an hour or so away from the campus so, despite my thirst for travel, I’ve lived in the same area my entire life.

Although I didn’t know what graphic design was until my late high-school years, I’ve always felt drawn to the visual compositions that surround our lives. As a child and an angst-filled tween, I was captivated by the over-sized art books I found in the local library and illustrations found on my great-grandmother’s sewing patterns. I often experimented with funky fonts when typing up school papers, and I still have a thick stack of advertisements I cut out and collected from the pages of various teen magazines.

A graphic designer’s job is not limited to creating a work that is visually appealing or eye-catching. Most importantly, it includes the need to communicate a specific message to a world already filled to the brim with information. A slightly daunting task, but one I’m eager to consistently tackle.

Even as I face an approaching graduation date (this May to be exact), the instructions that include what I’m supposed to do with my degree have yet to surface. I’ve been so lucky to have landed at Sundress Publications, and I’m positive that my experience here will help me get my bearings. I’m determined to fully experience everything I encounter as I navigate through the Wonderland that is adulthood. After all, life is about the journey (including the occasional fall through the rabbit hole).

Katy Bilbrey is a senior at Maryville College and is majoring in graphic design. A lover of vintage advertisements, typography, book-cover design, and the entirety of the Art Nouveau movement, she knows she is in the right field but is unsure of what she’s going to do with her degree. Her talents include reading multiple books at once, making fast decisions, and applying liquid eyeliner. In her free time, she enjoys laughing and FaceTiming her cat, Strawberry.

Meet Our New Editorial Intern: Kate Belew!

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When I’m not writing I love to dance, travel, go to concerts, hula hoop, and read tarot cards. My dog Rosie is possibly my best friend, and pizza is a staple in my diet.

I was raised in the small town of Marshall, Michigan. Marshall is so small that I can’t go anywhere without knowing someone, but outside of Marshall I would have to show others where I’m from using the palm of my hand held up to represent the mitten. It’s a Michigan thing…

As soon as I had a car I began spending time in Kalamazoo where I now attend college and study poetry with Diane Seuss at Kalamazoo College. I plan to graduate next summer with a degree in English and a minor in Psychology. I live in a big blue house at the bottom of campus with six girls that also attend Kalamazoo College. In my spare time, I intern at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center for their reading series, and co-edit The Cauldron, which is the literary journal at my school.

I began to write in third grade and it has since taken me everywhere from interning in New York City at Poets House and the National Book Critics Circle to studying in abroad in Madrid, Spain with a woman named Dora who spoke zero English and didn’t believe in the internet. Two summers ago, I spent a few months in the woods as a writing fellow at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute near Kalamazoo. This summer I taught children poetry through the words of Pablo Neruda and Shel Silverstein in workshops held at the public library in my hometown of Marshall.

I believe that poetry is a vessel for communication and human expression. I am so grateful that poetry has now brought me to Sundress as an editorial intern.

In the nearby future (after I graduate), I hope to move somewhere new and hopefully continue my writing career teaching poetry workshops before someday pursuing my MFA in poetry.

Kate Belew is a student of Poetry at Kalamazoo College where she studies with poet Diane Seuss. She interns with the reading series at The Kalamazoo Book Center, and received the Nature in Words Fellowship at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute where wrote in the woods all summer. She has been published in journals such as The Minetta Review, Collision Literary Magazine, and Cliterature. When she’s not writing she’s dancing, hula hooping, or reading tarot cards. She is a firm believer in duende.